There has been a lot of hype on this Board about 15 East, and I was quite excited to try the restaurant on a recent visit to New York.
Now good sushi is expensive and New York City, with rent and other overhead, is an especially expensive place to run a restaurant, so at $140 for omakase, I was not exactly expecting sublime sushi. But based on all that hype, I was expecting something along the lines of the perfectly decent sushi I could expect to find for the same price point, give or take, in Los Angeles.
Sadly, it was not to be, perhaps a function of the higher overhead of doing business in New York versus Los Angeles, meaning that after paying rent, taxes and salaries, there is little left over for the food.
Someone else on this Board – one of the few people not hyping 15 East – compared the sushi quality there to what you would find at a department store in Japan, and I think that sums it up nicely. Every single piece of sushi in my $140 omakase (as well as the non-sushi dishes) was average – there was not a single piece of fish that made me think “wow, this is really high quality fish.”
I also found the restaurant most unpleasant. There is a lovely Japanese expression “shibui,” which describes a Japanese aesthetic that is hard to completely define or translate, but in my mind conjures up refinement and a subdued elegance. I would describe the whole 15 East experience as anti-shibui.
First, when I walked in and sat down at the sushi bar, there were quite a few people standing with drinks and talking loudly close to the sushi bar area as they waited for their tables in the dining room. So, it was not exactly the feeling I hope to get at a good sushi bar of leaving the hurly-burly world behind and stepping into a bastion of refined tranquility.
The sushi bar itself was cramped and seated immediately to the right of me was a barefoot woman with extremely scaly feet who, perhaps confused that she was in a sushi bar and not a yoga class, was sitting cross-legged with both her feet up in the chair. (I am not making this up.) Because the sushi bar is so closely situated, her right scaly foot was practically in my lap. It was not pretty. As I said – the anti-shibui. And it was not like she sat in that position for a minute or two – no, she spent her entire meal in that position periodically widening her legs (in a mini-dress, no less) to reposition herself. In a different establishment with more attentive service, one would hope that the staff would have noticed and explained to the woman that it is customary to both keep one's shoes on and keep one’s feet on the floor when sitting at a sushi bar, but at 15 East, the staff either did not take note or did not care.
If the food was not so pedestrian, sitting next to Miss Scaly Foot might not have been so annoying, but combined with the pedestrian food, all I could think of was that I should have tried a different sushi bar. This brings up the philosophical question of whether a restaurant can be blamed for the boors who frequent it. Perhaps “blame” is the wrong word, but part of the dining experience, especially when you are in close quarters, are the others who frequent the restaurant. Although I haven’t been in years, I used to dine frequently at Kuruma and I just cannot imagine anyone sitting barefoot and cross-legged at the sushi bar at Kuruma. Different restaurants attract different crowds. Perhaps a Japanese restaurant that attracts more of a business crowd or more Japanese diners would have been a better choice for me. (Every Japanese person to whom I have told the story of Miss Scaly Feet has looked at me bug-eyed).
In between discussing where they would be going the following day to attend yoga class, Miss Scaly Foot and her dining companion kept loudly extolling the “absolutely amazing” sushi. Miss Scaly Foot’s companion also paid for her dinner because the companion works at some high-paid job that she loathes, so her only consolation in life is to be able to take her friends like Miss Scaly Foot out to “amazing” restaurants. Since the food was, in fact, far from amazing, this just added to the whole feeling of having landed in yahoo-land.
The meal was capped off by low-quality sencha. An old saw is that the way to judge a sushi restaurant is on the quality of the tamago, since if the tamago is well made, it is likely that the restaurant pays attention to detail in other matters as well. I was not served tamago at 15 East, but to me, one way to judge a quality of a Japanese restaurant is by the sencha that the restaurant serves. In my experience, really good sushi bars serve high quality sencha. The sencha at 15 East was as pedestrian as the sushi. Which, in the end, made perfect sense.